Lessons in leading troublesome troops

Managing Crisis - Managing Successful Universities
May 28, 2004

Here are two very different books from the Open University Press on the subject of managing universities and colleges. One, ably edited by David Warner and David Palfreyman, takes as its theme dealing with crises, the other, elegantly written by Michael Shattock, discusses how to be successful. Coming at the matter from opposite ends of the spectrum, the two books have much in common and, interestingly, reach similar upbeat conclusions.

Managing Crisis has at its core seven essays giving the grisly facts about problems in the recent histories of Cardiff, Lancaster, Thames Valley and London Guildhall universities, and Southampton Institute, Swansea Institute of Higher Education and Lambeth College. All these institutions faced some sort of crisis - of finance, of reputation or of organisation - that received a great deal of publicity at the time and that fed the notion that academic institutions are particularly prone to poor management.

The essays are nearly all written by key participants in the resolution of each crisis and are remarkable in their shrewd analysis of the troubles that beset their respective universities and colleges. An essay by Chris Duke gives an Antipodean perspective with an account of turmoil at the huge new West Sydney University; though his discussion is spiced with the subversive suggestion that crises are often overblown and used by interested parties in management to move things in the direction they want.

There is, in addition, a statesmanlike and, to my mind, very reassuring article by Brian Fender, giving his personal view of how in England the funding council has responded to institutional crises, but also setting out what helpful constraints determine the council's whole approach to the university sector. His concise and simple explanations of policy and methodology will come as a godsend to anyone who has wrestled with the technical prose of Higher Education Funding Council for England circulars.

Of course, the intention is to draw some general lessons from the case studies. But here there is a snag: although a lot of things can be put forward to explain a crisis - government policy, underfunding, poor estate and buildings, autocratic vice-chancellors, eccentric chairs of governing bodies, bolshie staff, unmotivated students and lack of focus - all have an impact on what is an extraordinarily diverse group of institutions.

There are 171 entities in "higher education" and another 500-odd in "further education". To gain meaningful general lessons from the seven case studies is quite hard: and one of the authors, struggling to do so, reminds us of Tolstoy's dictum that all happy families are alike, but each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way. Still a bold attempt, both to set the scene and to draw conclusions, is made by the editors and by Peter Scott, making this a useful and accessible read for those engaged in university administration.

Both books are sensitive to the fact that academics do not like to be bossed, and in all the case studies, as well as in Shattock's prescriptions for success, some emphasis is placed on consultation and on fostering true collegiality, which necessarily includes a degree of "constructive confrontation" between academics and administrators. So it is the autocratic chief executive type who is seen, more often than not, as being ineffective in higher education, and greater value is given to "flat" management structures or "bottom-up" decision-making. But as Shattock tellingly puts it: "Universities do not run themselves and... university management requires some of the best people in the university to be involved in it."

In summary, Shattock argues that teaching and research are the core business of all these institutions, but it is possible to shape the portfolio of any particular university or college by reference to objective measures of strengths and weaknesses. This done, or agreed, good management then consists of ensuring that every single decision, at whatever level, is a focused way of strengthening the institution as a whole.

Financial stability is an imperative, and in modern times this means diverse sources of funding, high and widely dispersed levels of financial literacy and a degree of puritanical hair-shirtism in conspicuous expenditure (no first-class rail tickets or an assigned parking place for the vice-chancellor). Collegiality is the best way to make decisions about research and teaching, rather than managerial direction. But decisions are required, not just consensual compromise. Good governance arrangements, protection of reputation, a clear and prominent engagement in the wider society and some ambition are all essential ingredients in a university's success.

This is all presented very charmingly, and the fiercer aspects of Shattock's managerial advice are likely to go unnoticed by many readers: an indication, of course, that management is inseparable from politics and good personal relationships kept in repair over many years. Certainly, from my Cambridge perspective (and Shattock is rightly critical and concerned about Cambridge complacency: indeed, had he been an editor of the other book Cambridge would surely have featured as a case study in crisis), the structures that he and his colleagues established to make Warwick University so successful an institution would seem from the academic's point of view to be extraordinarily interventionist and directional. It is not that my university is without centres of authority and influence: it is just that they are not so explicit, nor built so permanently into the formal bureaucratic structure.

In the end, what a university needs to achieve excellence in teaching and research is a structure that ensures that the academics can do just that without let or hindrance. Management is largely about being good with the money and seeing that the assets are well used; that there is ready compliance with the laws of the land; and that there is stalwart resistance to unwarranted interference from outside.

The most positive conclusion, which emerges strongly from both books, is that crises in higher education have been few and that the sector is in general well run - notwithstanding some sensationalist reporting in the press. (Roderick Floud comments that while solving the problems of his university it was "a matter for rueful regret, at times, that London Guildhall lies about ten minutes' walk from the offices of The Times Higher Education Supplement ".) Warner and Palfreyman point out that in the past decade there have been fewer than a dozen reported cases of serious difficulty, only half of which (that is, 0.2 per cent of the whole) have even got as far as generating a National Audit Office Report. This compares extremely well with performance by both central and local government (the authors cite the expensive mishandling of BSE and foot-and-mouth disease, and the collapse of education services in some London boroughs), let alone crises and scandals in private-sector firms, big and small (Enron, Barings, Marconi, Equitable Life, Railtrack and so on). And this is supported by Shattock, who argues from his data that while things can always be improved, success is within the reach of every institution. It is worth remembering that, however awkward and fractious academics might sometimes be, they usually behave sensibly and that they are extremely dedicated when it comes to academic work.

Gordon Johnson is president of Wolfson College, Cambridge, and provost of the Gates Cambridge Trust.

Managing Crisis

Author - David Warner and David Palfreyman
Publisher - Open University Press
Pages - 199
Price - £60.00 and £22.99
ISBN - 0 335 21059 7 and 21058 9

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